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August 16, 2018, Ethiopia

BIKING through the gates of hell

Christine Amour-Levar traverses the Danakil Depression in Ethiopia, the hottest place on Earth

Christine Amour-Levar

BURNING salt, sulphuric acid pools, bubbling lava lakes and volcanic rock — Ethiopia’s Danakil Depression has all these and more inferno-like geological features.

Said to be the hottest place on Earth, with daytime temperatures that can exceed 50 deg C and average year-round temperatures of 35 deg C, it is considered to be one of the most inhospitable environments in the world.

My 10-member team from Women on a Mission, a non-profit that leads expeditions to extreme environments to raise awareness and funds for disadvantaged women, was taking on a bold challenge — to cross the Danakil Desert on mountain bikes.

Located in the Afar region in north-east Ethiopia, the Danakil is part of the East African Rift System, where the Earth’s internal forces are tearing apart three continental plates, creating new land. The valley is often rocked by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

While the conditions in the Danakil are brutal, the Afar people have settled in semi-permanent villages there.

During our journey from Hamed Ela, a village located 150m below sea level, to Lake Afrera, we cycled through a vast area of the Danakil called Dallol, which has spectacular, bubbling sulphuric acid pools that are extremely acidic and salty. We also climbed up Erta Ale, a 600m-high active volcano that is one of the few in the world with a lava lake.

Breathtaking landscape

The unforgiving climate and harsh geography have contributed to a landscape that is at once alien-looking and breathtaking. We were often transfixed and overwhelmed by nature’s raw power and beauty.

It took us six days to cross the Danakil on bicycles — roughly 200km of vastly contrasting terrain, from sand, sulphuric acid and salt, to bush, lava and volcanic rock.

We battled the mental and physical challenges posed by the bone-drying aridity and oppressive temperatures, which left several of us with heatstroke on the first day.

It was an arduous trip, but we persevered, digging deeper every day to find resources we did not know we had.

On the last evening, the local crew that guided and supported us shared in our celebration and felt equally proud to have taken part in this extraordinary crossing.

It was an unforgettable adventure in this hostile and other-worldly place known as the Gateway to Hell.


■ We flew from Singapore to Addis Ababa on Ethiopian Airlines, then to Mek’ele, the capital city of the northern Tigray region, perched at an altitude of 2,000m. With our expedition guides, we drove five hours to Hamed Ela at the edge of the Danakil Desert.

■ Ethiopia is home to a diverse landscape and different peoples. It is one of the oldest Christian nations in the world, but the Afar people of the Danakil region are Muslim.

■ Go in the winter season, from November to February. It will be too hot otherwise.

■ The Danakil is dubbed “The Cradle of Hominids” as it is where the 3.2-million-year old hominid fossil Lucy was found.


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